As the owner of too many poem-bricks, I tried to resist Robert Pinsky's Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud (with 21-poem CD), but I was o'eruled. First I was intrigued by a lively 3/30/09 interview on WNYC's Leonard Lopate show (video excerpt at WNYC site, plus full audio at perishable iTunes link), in which Pinsky makes a convincing case for the fundamental need for verse that sounds good. The former U.S. Poet Laureate is quite funny when he demonstrates how not to read poetry--zombie style (my perennial peeve) or hambone. As he says, "You have to go to school to get it messed up" (Minute 5:30).
I took some lucky dips into a copy of Essential Pleasures at Brookline Booksmith and found not a single dud. I was beguiled by the way Pinsky mixed up the centuries and organized the poems by type--i.e. "Short Lines, Frequent Rhymes," and "Odes, Complaints, and Celebrations." This book would make a good reference for any young person starting a library--it's unstuffy, expansive without being exhaustive, and it rewards randomness.
April is the Most Poetical Month
If you want to listen to some samples, W.W. Norton has posted audio links of Pinsky and others reading from Essential Pleasures here. They are also honoring Poetry Month with a hipster selection of their contemporary poets' audio here.
Not All Poems Are Impenetrable
Pinsky's selections are rich with wit and clarity, regardless of era. This poem, from the "Parodies, Ripostes, Jokes, and Insults" section, was written in the 17th century, but it's easy to understand in the 21st, particularly if you take into account the author's life experience: at the age of 16, English poet Katherine Philips left behind her contented virgin state to marry a 54-year-old Puritan parliamentarian. (Pinsky reads it on the CD included with the book, and at Minute 14:30 on the Lopate podcast):
A Married State
by Katherine Phillips (1631-1664)
A married state affords but little ease
The best of husbands are so hard to please.
This in wives' careful faces you may spell
Though they dissemble their misfortunes well.
A virgin state is crowned with much content;
It's always happy as it's innocent.
No blustering husbands to create your fears;
No pangs of childbirth to extort your tears;
No children's cries for to offend your ears;
Few worldly crosses to distract your prayers:
Thus are you freed from all the cares that do
Attend on matrimony and a husband too.
Therefore Madam, be advised by me
Turn, turn apostate to love's levity,
Suppress wild nature if she dare rebel.
There's no such thing as leading apes in hell.
Poor Mr. Philips! Though Mrs. Philips claimed she never meant to publish...